I was driving home from a meeting yesterday when I heard Theresa McPhail's "This I Believe" essay on NPR. When she was four, her brother died in an accident, which caused a
seismic shift in my mom's attitude toward safety. Suddenly, everything around us was potentially dangerous. Overnight, the world had gone from a playground to a hazardous zone.
I grew up with a lot of restrictions and rules that were meant to protect me. I couldn't walk home from school by myself, even though everyone I knew already did. I couldn't attend pajama parties or go to summer camp, because what if something happened to me?
As I got older, the list of things to fear got longer. My entire life was divided into "things you should avoid" and "things you needed to do in order to have a good, long life."
Ironically (and sadly), Theresa's mother died when she was fourteen, killed in a car accident. Theresa says that at her mother's funeral she made a conscious decision to not let her mother's death paralyze her, but instead to live an exciting, fulfilling and potentially even "dangerous" life.
A lot of us live our lives gripped by fear. Not necessarily fear of physical dangers, but certainly of emotional ones. We're afraid to make mistakes, to be vulnerable, to look like maybe we don't know everything. We're afraid of being "out of control," of appearing "too emotional," of being transparent.
These fears keep us trapped in the same place. They can keep us isolated from those who could help us and even from a real understanding of ourselves. Our fears can rule us and sadly, we often don't realize their tyrannical force.
Theresa has dealt with her fears by practicing courage. She says:
Courage isn't a natural attribute of human beings. I believe that we have to practice being courageous; using courage is like developing a muscle. The more often I do things that scare me or that make me uncomfortable, the more I realize that I can do a lot more than I originally thought I could do.
Even though I inherited my mother's cautious nature, I've also come to believe that fear can be a good thing, if we face it. Believing that has made my world a less scary place.
I agree with this. To deal with our fears we have to practice daily acts of courage. When we do this, we're usually surprised to find that either our fears were unwarranted or that we actually gain more from facing those fears than we did from trying to protect ourselves. "Fake it till you make it" is one way I try to face my fears. Another is to just take a deep breath and jump off that emotional bridge, saying something that makes me uncomfortable but that I know needs to be said.
Some days I'm more courageous than others. I can tell when I've been playing it safe though. Those are the times I feel bored and restless. This means I'm not taking enough risks. These are also the times when I feel anxious and out-of-sorts. During those times I know there's a fear that I'm not facing head-on. I can then make a choice to let fear rule me or not. Sometimes I make the right choice immediately. Sometimes it can take a little longer. It takes practice to both see my fears and do something about them. I do know that, like exercise, facing my fears takes daily practice.
What are your daily acts of courage? How do you challenge your fears?